Tuesday, April 5, 2011

NGN Next Generation Network

NGN Next Generation Network

Next Generation Network (NGN) is a term used within the telecommunications industry to designate the successor to the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN). NGNs are intended to be all-IP1 networks that will combine some features of the current TCP/IP-based protocol at the logical layer with a variety of features yet to be determined at the applications layer. NGNs are expected to replace the PSTN as well as a set of independent networks running on different protocols which are currently operated by telephone companies. The overwhelming need of large carriers is to reduce costs by getting all their traffic into a single infrastructure, rather than the several that they operate at this time. This can only be accomplished by a migration to an architecture based on IP. Carriers also seek to extract more money from Internet-based transactions for themselves.

Telephone companies (hereafter frequently called telcos) are in a race against time. Their core revenues from voice calling are declining. They need to migrate their businesses, or absorb more of the economic value of the Internet for themselves. NGNs can be seen as part of a strategy to do this. Telcos are threatened by the cable industry and other competitors, who may have relatively better prospects. The principal advantage of the telephone companies is that they are masters of the regulatory and standards arenas. Consequently it is rational for them to deploy their energies in these arenas to better their chances.

It is my contention that the NGN discussion is largely a self-interested ploy by the telephone companies to survive the onslaught of the Internet. The interesting question for me is whether the growing interest by governments and the state security apparatus in the security of communications and of communications infrastructure may lend assistance to their cause. This would occur through the development of processes for authentication and authorization which, it is generally agreed, are required if carriers are to be able to determine whether a person is of major age and can pay for what he has ordered.

NGNs are the telcos’ attempt to extract more of the economic benefits of the Internet for carriers, as opposed to producers and consumers. My thesis is that the Internet’s basic advantages will prevail, and that the NGN, though it claims to be a blend of the PSTN and the Internet, is in effect the last gasp of the telcos to transform and tame this dreadful innovation into something that will still keep telcos at the centre of power in telecommunications. There is a real possibility they could succeed, but I am highly skeptical.

Next Generation Networks defined

The ITU1 working definition of the NGN is as follows:

"A Next Generation Network (NGN) is a packet-based network able to provide services including Telecommunication Services and able to make use of multiple broadband, QoS-enabled2 transport technologies and in which service-related functions are independent from underlying transport-related technologies (emphasis mine –TMD). It offers unrestricted access by users to different service providers. It supports generalized mobility which will allow consistent and ubiquitous provision of services to users."

The NGN is characterized by the following fundamental aspects:
  • Packet-based transfer ;
  • Separation of control functions among bearer capabilities, call/session, and application/ service ;
  • Decoupling of service provision from network, and provision of open interfaces ;
  • Support for a wide range of services, applications and mechanisms based on service building blocks (including real time/ streaming/ non-real time services and multi-media) ;
  • Broadband capabilities with end-to-end QoS and transparency ;
  • Interworking with legacy networks via open interfaces ;
  • Generalized mobility ;
  • Unrestricted access by users to different service providers ;
  • A variety of identification schemes which can be resolved to IP addresses for the purposes of routing in IP networks ;
  • Unified service characteristics for the same service as perceived by the user ;
  • Converged services between Fixed/Mobile ;
  • Independence of service-related functions from underlying transport technologies;
  • Compliant with all Regulatory requirements, for example concerning emergency communications and security/privacy, etc.
Many of these points seem to mirror the fundamental features of the Internet. It is my contention and those of others closer to the standards development process that this is not really so. The NGN standards process is schizophrenic, to misuse the term in the popular sense: it cannot really accommodate the logic of the Internet because in the Internet there is no real need for a service provider.

The nature of NGNs is being worked out in a number of places, one of the most important of which is Study Group 13 of the ITU3. The International Telecommunications Union is a treaty organization based in Geneva in which carriers play a leading role in standards development.

An earlier paper (2003) from the Electronic Communications Committee of the European Conference on Postal and Telecommunications Administration (CEPT)4 was more blunt in its definition of NGN:

"The term NGN is used here to describe the telcos’ attempt to develop an IP-based platform for future services..."

A vital feature of the NGN is the separation of the provision of services, network and access, so that the vertical integration characteristic of the telephone system would not be retained.

We need to keep in mind that this table of characteristics represents the most telephone-centric conception of what NGNs might mean. What will it mean that user-user services would be "centrally controlled, with much greater scope for third party services run via APIs1"? This is really the core idea of the PSTN, carried forward into the NGN, and it contradicts the ITU’s list of characteristics of the NGN which was cited before.

However, the issue of who will create services is only one, albeit the most important issue, from an Internet-centric view. NGNs can be seen as an opportunity to saddle the Internet with many of the characteristics of the current telephone system. The regulatory and standards battles ahead concern virtually every issue currently at play in telecommunications. In the pages that follow, we briefly outline the issues and try to transform them from an "amorphous blob of rhetoric2" into a feasible program of research.

The real question to discern in all of this talk about NGNs is whether the telcos will be able to adapt the Internet to their purposes and if so, whether the public Internet that we all know will continue unaffected. The PSTN shows a hardy resistance to dying, despite the fact that its demise has been long predicted.

Whether Next Generation Network (NGN) prove to be a viable competitor to the Internet is unclear. What we can be sure of is that the urge to control traffic and extract revenue from the Internet by carriers, at the expense of producers and consumers, is strong. The regulatory agenda will change drastically in the next few years, and the forums in which the issues are fought will change too. Any social arrangement based on concepts and facts derived from the PSTN is bound to change in the next five to ten years, even as the urge to subsidize certain uses, users and social purposes continues.

Timothy Denton, BA, BCL
Master’s Program (LLM) in Law and Technology, University of Ottawa